Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Small Voice (1948)

The Small Voice (AKA The Hideout) is a 1948 British crime thriller that is a bit more complex than the usual run of such films.

Playwright Murray Byrne (James Donald) and his wife Eleanor (Valerie Hobson) are quarrelling. Which is what they do most of the time. It’s not that they’re no longer in love. They just can’t seem to live together. Murray lost a leg during the war and he’s never quite recovered his confidence. He feels like half a man, all that sort of thing. And Eleanor has a lot of male admirers. She’s an actress and a glamorous one. Male admirers come with the territory. She has no intention of being unfaithful but she can’t convince Murray of that. And eventually Murray’s self-pity will drive her into the arms of another man. Eleanor wants to get out before that happens. She’s decided to leave him. Things are pretty tense as they drive home from the railway station.

They’re about to get a lot tenser. Murray and Eleanor are about to encounter three desperate armed fugitives who killed a policeman. Now their car has crashed and they need a place to hide out.

Boke (Howard Keel) is the ringleader who masterminded an escape from a military prison, along with Frankie and the slightly simple-minded Jim. The three fugitives hold the Byrnes hostage in the Byrne’s cottage but there’s a complication. In the other car involved in the accident were two small children. Frankie and Jim decided to bring them along to the cottage. They might be desperadoes but they’re not callous enough to leave two terrified children behind, and they’re certainly not cold-blooded enough to kill the children. And one of the kids is sick. Real sick.

Now the battle of wills starts. Murray thinks that being a playwright specialising in plays about crime he can break Boke’s spirit. Boke thinks he can break Murray’s spirit. Eleanor thinks she can uncover some basic humanity in Boke and persuade him to save the sick boy. It all works because of the nicely understated performances, and because of the well-crafted script.

But the hostage drama is only part of what’s going on. There’s also the marriage between Murray and Eleanor, a marriage that is not merely headed for the rocks but has already hit them. Now they’re going to have to depend on each other for a while at least. Eleanor is not sure if she can depend on Murray, and Murray is not sure about that either. But it’s not just their own lives on the line but a child’s as well.

Of course there’s tension between the fugitives as well. A policeman was killed. Someone is going to hang for that, but it was Boke who pulled the trigger so why should the other two swing for it as well? And there’s the race against time element. The boy has meningitis. Without treatment his chances of survival are very slim and if he dies then Boke’s accomplices can be quite certain of keeping an appointment with the hangman.

James Donald’s natural seriousness as an actor stands him in good stead here. Murray is a humourless prickly kind of character. He’s a character we grow to respect, rather than one we like immediately. Valerie Hobson has the right combination of glamour and strength of character to make Eleanor convincing. Howard Keel, in a rare non-singing rôle, brings a brooding intensity to Boke.

There’s some interesting subtle sexual tension between Boke and Eleanor. The relationship between Murray and Eleanor is always believable. They both behave unreasonably at times but no matter how exasperated they are with each other they’re also obviously still in love even if their chances of repairing their marriage seem hopeless.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is full frame (the movie was shot in the (4:3 aspect ratio). As usual there are no extras and as usual the transfer is extremely good.

So we have here a taut suspense thriller laced with emotional drama and both elements work very successfully. Like so many British crime films of this era it’s a very well-made little film. Is it good enough to qualify for neglected gem status? I think it is. Therefore The Small Voice is highly recommended.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Une Parisienne (1957)

Une Parisienne (AKA La Parisienne) is an early Brigitte Bardot movie, released in 1957. I find Bardot’s romantic comedies of this era to be rather charming and this one is no exception. It was directed by Michel Boisrond who also helmed two of her other equally enjoyable 1950s romantic comedies, Naughty Girl and Come Dance With Me.

Bardot plays Brigitte Laurier, the daughter of the President of France. She has decided that she is madly in love with her father’s private secretary, Michel Legrand (Henri Vidal). Michel already has enough to worry about, with assorted mistresses including at least one who has tried to kill him. He is also ambitious and does not want to offend her other by playing footsies with his daughter.

Brigitte is however a very determined girl and she cooks up various schemes to capture Michel, schemes which eventually succeed. Once they are married the trouble really starts. Brigitte is sure that her new husband is still playing around with his mistresses (and certainly his mistresses are still pursuing him). So, at a reception for a European prince,  she announces that she is going to have an affair with the next man who walks through the door. The next man who walks through the door happens to be the prince. Brigitte is undaunted.

Prince Charles is played by Charles Boyer, perhaps a little old at that time to be paired with Bardot (he was 58). But then Brigitte’s pursuit of the prince is supposed to be outrageous. It is fascinating to see Boyer, one of the great French male screen heart-throbs of an earlier era, teamed up with the greatest French female sex symbol of the 50s (and possibly the greatest French female sex symbol of all time).

Bardot was twenty-three at the time, at the height of her beauty and already a seasoned actress. She had a particular gift for light comedy. She made something of a speciality of playing naughty girls. Not evil women, not dangerous women, just girls who are harmlessly and delightfully troublesome. The sort of women who won’t ruin a man’s life but they will make his life an endless series of dramas. But he won’t really mind. That’s the sort of girl she plays in this movie. Brigitte is oblivious to the normal social rules and creates mayhem but in a good-natured sort of way. She is exasperating but always adorable.

As is the case with all of her movies of this period (and most of the movies of her career) this is almost entirely a star vehicle for Bardot. She is the reason you’re going to watch this movie and she is more than capable of carrying such a film on her own. She positively sparkles. She is astonishingly sexy, but in a playful and almost wholesome way. She gives the impression of being a woman who really enjoyed everything about being a woman.

While this is very much Bardot’s movie she gets very good support from Henri Vidal and from Boyer.

This movie gets off to a bit of a slow start but once it builds up a head of steam it becomes a sheer delight. It’s a movie in which adultery is taken for granted and anyone could be sharing anyone else’s bed but it’s a kind of honest adultery. The characters have affairs but they don’t really hide them and (in contrast to real life) no-one actually gets hurt. This is the jet set lifestyle.

And Brigitte only wants to have an affair to make her husband love her. What she really wants is a proper marriage, which she doesn’t think she has.

The witty script gives Bardot and her co-stars something to work with.

This was 1957 so there’s no nudity and Bardot proves she didn’t need to get naked to be sexy.

This movie has been released on DVD but good luck finding it, especially a version with English subtitles. I caught it on cable TV. It’s a great pity because it’s one of Bardot’s best early films.

Une Parisienne is a frothy lightweight romantic sex comedy with Bardot at the top of her game, doing the sort of thing she did supremely well. What’s not to love? Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Candidate for Murder (1962)

Candidate for Murder is a 1962 entry in the incredibly prolific series of Edgar Wallace thrillers made by Merton Park Studios in England.

Donald Edwards (Michael Gough) has a beautiful and glamorous wife but Helene Edwards  (Erika Remberg) is a film star and she’s off to Hollywood to make a movie. And she’s announced that she thinks they should have a trial separation. She also has a friend, a handsome barrister named Robert Vaughan (John Justin). Helene insists that there’s nothing in it although it’s pretty obvious that there’s quite a bit in it.

Donald was always a jealous husband and now he’s become just a little unhinged by all this. In fact he’s hired a hitman to resolve his marital difficulties for him.

Kersten (Hans von Borsody) is the hitman. He’s a German, a veteran of the French Foreign Legion, and he’s your archetypal cold-as-ice professional killer.

Of course things don’t go off quite as expected. In fact they don’t go off as anybody expected.

The basic setup is as old as the hills but this one adds some genuinely neat and original twists (and there are quite a few of those twists). It even has some interesting character stuff.

And there’s some location shooting and even some action.

Playing a character who is a bit unhinged is obviously right up Michael Gough’s alley. He’s trying to stay in control but right from the start it’s clear he’s not playing with a full deck. He wants Kersten to tell him all about killing, how it feels for the killer and how it feels for the victim. Kersten obviously doesn’t feel anything at all and is annoyed by the questioning. He’s happy to do the job but not too comfortable about the thought that he may be working for an unpredictable madman.

Erika Remberg does well as Helene, making her neither too sympathetic nor too unsympathetic. She probably has done her best to be a good wife but Donald Edwards would obviously be a difficult man to be married to.

Director David Villiers is a bit of a mystery man. He apparently died the same year this movie was released, having directed only two features. He handles things here very efficiently.

Writer Lukas Heller had a much more illustrious career, having scripted a varied assortment of odd but interesting movies (The Killing of Sister George, the delightful tongue-in-cheek spy flick Hot Enough for June, The Dirty Dozen and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?). His screenplay for Candidate for Murder is extremely clever.

The black-and-white cinematography is very good and I liked the Edwards house - one of those split-level houses so popular in the early 60s.

The one aspect of the movie that some people seem to find unsatisfactory and implausible (or poorly motivated) actually makes perfect sense if you watch the movie carefully. Perhaps some viewers just weren’t expecting such subtlety, or weren’t expecting to have to think about a cheap B-movie.

This film is part of Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume Three DVD boxed set. As usual the anamorphic transfer (all the Merton Park Edgar Wallace films were shot widescreen) is excellent.

Candidate for Murder is for my money one of the better entries in what is on the whole a pretty solid cycle of mystery thrillers. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Jungle Girl (1941)

Jungle Girl is one of the series of excellent late 1930s/early 1940s Republic serials directed by William Witney and John English. This one was released in 1941 and introduced Nyoka the Jungle Girl who would also feature in a later William Witney-directed serial, Perils of Nyoka.

Jungle Girl is supposedly based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Now Burroughs did indeed write a novel called Jungle Girl. And a very good novel it is too - you can read my review here. But there is absolutely no connection whatsoever between this novel and the Jungle Girl serial. Obviously Republic bought the rights to the book since the Edgar Rice Burroughs name would be a definite box-office asset and then proceeded to create their own story. Which doesn't matter. Jungle Girl is a fine novel, and the Jungle Girl serial is terrific as well. They’re just not related in any way.

Nyoka (Frances Gifford) does seem a little bit like a lady Tarzan. She travels through the jungle by swinging through the trees on vines, she rides elephants and she knows the jungle like the back of her hand. But Nyoka is not an orphan raised by apes. She lives in the depths of the West African rainforest in the unexplored region of the Simbula Swamps, in the territory of the Masamba tribe. She lives there with her father, Dr John Meredith. Many years earlier Dr Meredith saved the life of the chief of the Masamba and as a result he was made the tribe’s witch doctor or medicine man and he has spent the intervening years bringing the benefits of modern medicine to the Masamba.

There is a reason that Dr Meredith has chosen to remain deep in the jungle and and has chosen to raise his daughter Nyoka there. He has an evil twin brother named Bradley, a notorious criminal now serving a long prison sentence, and his self-imposed exile is his way of avoiding any contact with his brother, and avoiding the scandals associated with his brother. Nyoka is therefore, like Tarzan, caught between two worlds. She has picked up a western education from her father and she has picked up the lore of the jungle as well.

Everything is fine until Jack Stanton (Tom Neal) arrives in his aeroplane with a passenger, a certain Slick Latimer (Gerald Mohr). Latimer tells Dr Meredith that his brother is dying and that he must go to him immediately. But maybe it isn’t a great idea to trust Slick Latimer. Nyoka has some problems to deal with as well. When Dr Meredith became the tribe’s witch doctor the previous holder of that office, Shamba, was displaced. And he’s been brooding about it ever since. Now he’s ready to do something about it. He’s ready to perform some nasty voodoo rites and to take more direct steps as well, with Nyoka as his target.

The key is the Lion Amulet, which is not only the badge of office of the current medicine man, it also allows across to the Caves of Nakros. That’s where the tribe keeps its treasure. And that treasure consists of an immense hoard of diamonds.

Slick Latimer and Bradley Meredith have their own plans to get hold of the Lion Amulet, with Bradley Meredith posing as his brother.

Frances Gifford is an energetic and appealing heroine. She looks convincing athletic and she’s very attractive. She’s not a great actress but she’s quite adequate. Tom Neal as Jack is an interesting choice for the hero rôle. He’s remembered today for his off-the-wall and disturbingly intense performance in Edgar G. Ulmer’s bizarre but fascinating 1945 film noir Detour. He’s intense here as well, making him intriguingly different to most serial heroes. In fact his acting is pretty decent. So we have a genuinely interesting heroine and a genuine interesting hero.

We also have a pretty cool villain in Slick Latimer, played by Gerald Mohr who positively drips with evilness.

It’s quite amusing that very few of the Masamba tribesmen look even slightly African. In fact I think the actors playing those parts cover just about every ethnicity except African. The Masamba chief is played by a Hawaiian while the evil witch doctor Shamba is played by a Syrian.

There are all the usual hazards for our heroes to face. The only problem with jungle serials is that you pretty much know you’re going to get a guy in a gorilla suit, poison darts, the hero wrassling crocodiles and lions, etc. What matters is that being a Republic serial of this era the fights, the stunts and the cliffhangers are all without exception extremely well executed. There’s an excellent cliffhanger ending that is incredibly similar to an equally excellent cliffhanger in an earlier William Witney-John English serial, the superb Daredevils of the Red Circle. And one cute touch is that in this serial it’s the heroine, not the hero, who wrassles crocodiles and lions barehanded. She gets captured a lot and has to be rescued, but Jack and his sidekick Curly also get captured a lot and Nyoka does her share of rescuing.

There’s also the obligatory cute kid, with an obligatory cute pet (a remarkably intelligent monkey).

With most serials you have to put up with at least one filler chapter made up of flashbacks from earlier chapters but that’s not the case here. There are also no real pacing problems - the action keeps moving along pretty nicely.

The fact that Jack has a plane which plays an important part in the story adds some further interest and there’s an aerial action climax.

VCI’s DVD release is very pleasing. The transfers are very good. The earlier VHS releases of this serial have a very poor reputation (even by VHS standards) for image quality but there’s nothing to complain of here.

Jungle Girl is certainly a superior serial. It’s better acted than most, the jungle setting is utilised well, the cliffhangers are great and it’s generally very enjoyable viewing. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Vice Raid (1959)

Vice Raid is a 1959 low-budget crime pot-boiler included in Kino Lorber’s three-movie set featuring legendary blonde bombshell Mamie van Doren. The title promises plenty of lurid thrills. We’ll see whether it delivers the goods.

Tough but honest cop Sergeant “Whitey” Brandon (Richard Coogan) has been trying to break up a vice racket run by mobster Vince Malone (Brad Dexter). The reason he’s been having so much trouble (as the audience finds out right at the beginning) is that Malone has so many crooked cops on his payroll.

Malone is getting tired of the pressure from Brandon and he cooks up a plan to deal with the problem.

For the plan to work Malone needs a girl with looks and brains and the Syndicate has just the right girl - Carol Hudson (Mamie van Doren). This is a rôle that gives Miss van Doren a chance to strut her bad girl stuff. Carol is one dangerous broad. She has the body of a goddess and the morals of an alley cat.

Carol’s job is to set Brandon up so he looks like a corrupt cop. The plan succeeds and Brandon is out of a job. But Brandon is not a guy who gives up. Now he’s on a one-man crusade against the vice racket and everyone associated with it, including corrupt cops. He just needs to find a weakness in Malone’s setup. He has one big advantage - this is a personal vendetta and he’s happy to risk his own skin if it’s necessary.

Carol’s problem is her kid sister Louise (played by the delectable Carol Nugent), fresh off the bus from Iowa. Louise is physically all grown up but she’s as naïve as they come. The only thing Carol cares about, apart from money, is little sister. The smart thing would be to put Louise straight back on that bus to Iowa, but persuading Louise to go proves to be a challenge. Louise can’t believe how much money her big sister makes as a model. She naturally doesn’t know that Carol is no model. This is Louise’s first glimpse of the glamour of the big bad city and she likes what she sees.

Brandon starts to make his moves in a dangerous game of bluff with Malone. Malone is a tough customer, tally untroubled by moral scruples. He does have a weakness however. He understands the rackets but he doesn’t understand women.

The plot is fairly routine. You can predict most of what’s going to happen. Which doesn’t really matter. It’s executed with plenty of energy and a fair amount of sleaze (a lot of sleaze by 1959 standards) although the sleaze is mostly implied. This is pretty close to being an out-and-out exploitation movie. Since it was released by United Artists it’s perhaps not a true exploitation movie, but it has some of that grungy feel to it. This is a very cheap movie with just a limited number of very basic sets but it was photographed by Stanley Cortez so it manages to look better than it has any right to look.

Mamie van Doren is in fine form. She’s hardbitten and sexy but as she often did van Doren manages to make her character believable. She wasn’t a great actress but she gives it her all and she dominates the movie.

The anamorphic transfer is excellent. This movie is in black-and-white and it’s the sort of movie that really needs to be in black-and-white in order to capture just the right blend of sleaze and seedy glamour.

Vice Raid belongs to an era in which movies like this tried desperately hard to be salacious but they had to pull their punches. They can’t actually tell us that Malone’s model agencies are fronts for prostitution (or that Carol is a prostitute) but they can make sure we figure it out. And perhaps surprisingly they do tell us outright when one of the female characters is raped (and while we only see the lead-up to the rape the woman’s obvious terror is quite harrowing).

Vice Raid is a routine B-movie potboiler but it has Mamie van Doren and she’s reason enough to see it. Recommended.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Fallen Idol (1948)

The Fallen Idol, released in 1948, was the first of three very successful collaborations between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene. Reed had come up with the idea of doing a film based on Greene’s 1935 short story The Basement Room and asked Greene to write the screenplay.

The story had been set in the past in a large house in Belgravia but in 1948 such houses with a multitude of servants were becoming a thing of the past. Reed decided that an embassy would be the closest modern equivalent so the movie is set in the French Embassy in London. The early stages of the movie follow the short story fairly closely but towards the end it diverges from the short story in a number of very significant ways.

Phillipe (Bobby Henrey)  is a small boy growing up in the embassy. In fact he’s the son of the ambassador. His mother is away and has been for quite some time, recovering from a serious illness. His father is of course too busy to spend much time with Phillipe. The boy doesn’t mind because he has Baines (Ralph Richardson), the embassy’s English butler, whom the lad hero-worships. Phillipe believes every word of the tall stories Baines tells him of his adventures in Africa as a young man.

One thing Phillipe is learning about life is that you have to keep secrets. You especially have to keep secrets from Mrs Baines. He is afraid of Mrs Baines. Everybody is afraid of Mrs Baines, and with good reason. Phillipe has his secrets. And he discovers that Baines has a secret too. It’s about his niece. At least he tells the boy that Julie (Michèle Morgan) is his niece.

The secrets become important when tragedy strikes. Is it best to tell the truth or to tell lies? Everything Phillipe has seen of life so far suggests that lies are the best policy.

At the point where you think the story has more or less reached its finale it’s actually only just getting into top gear. Now the twists kick in. The lies multiply. There are so many lies that when someone tells the truth it sounds like a lie, and when someone tells a lie it sounds like the truth. Now we’re well and truly in Greeneland, and if you’ve seen the later Graham Greene-Carol Reed collaborations The Third Man and Our Man in Havana you know how cleverly Greene can deal with a world of deception. Once you start telling lies you just have to keep going but there’s quite an art to keeping the lies straight.

But this film not only has a superb script by Greene it also has the visual brilliance that one expects from Carol Reed. The scene with the boy on the fire escape is a typical Reed tour-de-force. This being a 1940s Carol Reed film you’ll be expecting some Dutch angles and other visual flourishes and he provides them, but with Reed the visual pyrotechnics always serve a purpose. This is a twisted world of deceit. Reed was at the top of his form in the late 40s and Greene was just starting to reach his peak.

What’s really interesting is that the lies are not told by bad people and they’re not really told for malicious purposes. Sometimes they’re told with the best of intentions. But they become a habit. Just as secrets are not necessarily a bad thing but they become a habit too. Lies and secrets can be a kindness, but they can be dangerous.

Ralph Richardson gives his finest screen performance. Michèle Morgan and young Bobby Henrey are very good and there’s a terrific supporting cast - Jack Hawkins, Bernard Lee, Sonia Dresdel, Geoffrey Keen.

There’s some definite seriousness here but this is not Greeneland at its darkest. There’s some humour and there are even touches of genuine human warmth. One thing you need to bear in mind is that this was an early short story by a writer still learning his craft. When Greene wrote the screenplay for The Fallen Idol thirteen years later he was an established writer just about at the top of his game.

The Studiocanal Region 2 DVD offers a lovely transfer and quite a few extras. There are several other DVD and Blu-Ray releases.

The Fallen Idol is a quirky film. It’s part murder mystery, part suspense film and part psychological drama. Surprisingly perhaps it was a major box office success. This is a truly great movie, one of the classics of British cinema. Very highly recommended.

My review of the original short story can be found here at Vintage Pop Fictions.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Girl in Black Stockings (1957)

The Girl in Black Stockings, released in 1957, is part of Kino Lorber’s three-movie set of steamy crime potboilers featuring the legendary blonde bombshell Mamie van Doren although she actually plays only a supporting rôle in this particular movie.

A women’s body is found in the bushes at a resort hotel in Utah. The young woman apparently had a less than respectable reputation. The body is found by lawyer Dave Hewson (Lex Barker) and Beth Dixon (Anne Bancroft). The obvious suspect would be Edmund Parry (Ron Randell), the owner of the hotel and a man who thoroughly hated the dead girl (in fact he doesn’t seem overly fond of women in general). Parry is looked after by his devoted sister Julia (Marie Windsor). But Parry is completely paralysed so that pretty much eliminates him as a suspect. Fortunately (or from the sheriff’s point of view unfortunately) there are plenty of other suspects.

Pretty soon the bodies start to pile up. The sheriff knows he’s dealing with a psycho but there seem to be plenty of potential psychos among the suspects.

Apart from those mentioned above there’s a faded movie star, his blonde good time gal girlfriend Harriet (van Doren) and a local Lothario. I was pretty certain I knew what the solution was going to turn out to be but I admit I was totally wrong.

This was 1957 so while there are plenty of brutal murders the violence occurs off screen. The sexual content is obviously entirely implied as well but Mamie van Doren still manages to heat things up in her inimitable style.

For a cheapie B-budget this film boasts a pretty strong cast. Anne Bancroft and Lex Barker are the headliners but of course there’s Mamie van Doren and Marie Windsor, both B-move favourites. And in one of his most substantial rôles, as the local sheriff, there’s John Dehner and he’s one of my favourite American character actors. Ron Randell doesn’t let the fact that the character he’s playing is paralysed stop him from chewing the scenery.

All the performances are very good. The players are giving it everything they’ve got and there really aren’t any weak links among the cast. Ron Randell is the standout - he really is scary and creepy.

This is very much a B-picture but it has absolutely everything you could wish for in a B-picture. There’s some reasonably lurid subject matter, there’s glamour and there’s a well-constructed script by Richard H. Landau with some good red herrings and an effective shock ending. Director Howard W. Koch does a fine job. Given the low budget he can’t do anything too fancy but he gives us some nicely atmospheric moments and there’s certainly no reason to complain about the pacing. It’s a well-crafted little movie.

Location shooting was done at the Parry Lodge in Utah. It’s a great location which was used in countless movies and I believe it still exists.

The anamorphic transfer is excellent. The extras include a fascinating interview with Miss van Doren (who is at the time of writing still very much alive). She talks about the three movies included in the set (of which she has fond memories) and about her 1950s career in general.

The Girl in Black Stockings is a solid murder mystery with perhaps some very faint noir tinges. It’s content to be a B-movie, but it’s a good and very entertaining B-movie. Highly recommended even if Mamie van Doren doesn’t get anywhere near enough screen time.